Heisenberg & Philosophy

The final chapter of Heisenberg’s  Physics & Philosophy (full text) is one of the most interesting pieces of thought I have read in quite some time. This excellent piece, which clearly shows the hand of genius, is an elegant extension of Heisenberg’s own scientific research and inspiration into the world of philosophy. In Heisenberg we see the Renaissance Man that many modern authors have sorrowfully lamented, as Heisenberg uses some of the foundational concepts of quantum physics to comment on the epistemological construct of human thought. He coherently demonstrates how science has become too narrow in its views since the Renaissance (notably the nineteenth century), which has led to a loss of macroscopic understanding of the nature of the universe and too heavy reliance on empirical observation. He discusses that this inclination to segment knowledge into complete and perfected units, was likely brought about by the need to separate empirical epistemology from theological doctrine – such as was necessitated by those wishing to avoid “the instruments of torture” of the Catholic church. From such origins we see an increasing reliance on empirical evidence, something that has been difficult for particle physicists until ever greater technological inventions grace the stage (such as the Large Hadron Collider).

The crux of the argument is demonstrated halfway through the chapter where we can hear overtones of the uncertainty principle as applied to general epistemology of reality. It is important to note that the uncertainty principle is not simply about knowing either position or momentum (a combination of direction and velocity) but that by knowing one more, the other becomes less known due to the constraints of Planck’s constant. This is expressed in the syllogism (paraphrased):

  • Scientific concepts are idealisations;
  • They are defined from experience obtained by refined experimental tools;
  • And are precisely defined through axioms;
  • Through these definitions they can be connected to mathematics;
  • Mathematics explores an infinite variety of possibilities;
  • Through this process immediate connection with reality is lost.

What this is saying is that as you try and pinpoint a reality with math (which is of itself a human expression of the universe by creating incomplete models), you are instantly creating a symbol for, and approximation of, what is actually happening. In effect you are narrowing a position and losing integrity of momentum. This argument is re-stated in a number of variations to ensure the reader understands the message and can appreciate the contradictions involved in capturing reality into language. For instance he makes an excellent point regarding the contribution of the Japanese to theoretical physics stemming from a culture that is founded on philosophies far more in line with quantum theory than the “naïve materialistic way of thinking that still prevailed in Europe in the first decades of this century”.

With the precision of reason of a master physicist, he then extrapolates this argument to demonstrate how our narrow-minded cognition has detrimentally impacted our society using Marx as an example of non-complex thinking. He ends with a warning about the nuclear arms race and touches on basic principles of complexity theory when he discusses unification and a shift in metacognition when the masses become conscious of the processes taking place.

The crux of the argument consists of a passage of five sentences, “On the other hand, the scientific concepts are idealisations….but the correspondence may be lost in other parts containing other groups of phenomena” for all of the reasons laid out above. It is saying that, if you try and define something too narrowly then it will loose its complex entirety. In otherwords, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Heisenberg is very clear that we should use the lessons of quantum physics to guide our own epistemological methods when exploring the world around us when he says, “In this way modern physics has perhaps opened the door to a wider outlook on the relation between the human mind and reality”. In this he is no doubt referring to not just the uncertainty principle, but other fantastical aspects of the world of quantum mechanics such as the double slit experiments used to explore wave-particle duality; this phenomenon is counter-intuitive to our understanding of the world, but an easily observed empirical fact nonetheless.

He enhances this argument by pointing out that the Japanese mind-set made it easier for their culture to embrace quantum physics, as it is more in tune with their philosophical beliefs. “relationship between philosophical ideas…and the philosophical substance of quantum theory”. In this, he is likely referring to the Shinto expression of Taoism in which the more one attempts to know the Dao the less one will actually connect with it.

With the shift in cognition about the way we can develop understanding of the world around us that has been enhanced by big data analytics, we have begun to approach problems in entirely new ways. For instance, we know that mathematics are representational constructs of reality and thus will only ever approximate reality, even if it is with extremely high statistical accuracy, that is still not reality. Heisenberg sums this up thus, “In the practical decisions of life it will scarcely ever by possible to go through all of the arguments in favour of or against one possible decision, and one will therefore always have to act on insufficient evidence”.

What we have developed – which is extraordinary – is artificial neural networks. This is a fairly new computer science which works to not only number crunch complexity but to also “learn” answers. A notable example of this is the Google experiment of June 2012. In this instance, a neural network was shown unlabeled YouTube stills until it could start to recognize common objects. The first object it recognized was, of course, a cat! hahahaha

The Google Cat

This is Google’s image of a cat, without knowing what a cat is. This is a constructed image of what Google thinks a cat might look like.

The point of this is that we are developing entirely new means of epistemological acquired knowledge, new ways of understanding the large amounts of data around us. The Google neural network is still very far from measuring up to even the most average human brain, but it is a significant step. What is even more significant is what this science will be able to teach us about our own nature of perception and understanding. Imagine the day when we have artificial neural networks powerful enough to compute what it thinks the Higgs field looks like! At that point will we be staring at the face of “god” as Hawking so desired in the 1980’s.

Our traditional linear model of empirical epistemology is outdated and inadequate in a world that is far more complex than Isaac Newton would have us believe. If there is a theory of everything, it is far more likely to look like a fractal image of a Google cat than a neat little equation – sorry Dr. Hawking. The fundamental methods we have been using to define the universe are demonstrating themselves to be no more than tools of broadstroke that can paint primary pictures for us but that cannot express the elegance of our complex universe. By employing a new approach to knowing, such as Heisenberg demonstrates is suggested to us by quantum mechanics or Japanese philosophy, we can come to appreciate the fluidity and intricate entanglement of the universe. As he so clearly states, we need to fundamentally change our approach to how we deconstruct and describe the world around us.

Heisenberg has a unique genius and possibly one of the best writing styles I have ever encountered. I wish that I could write like this! I was extremely impressed with his depth of construction of argument as well as his prodigious foresight into the nature of humanity and where we are headed. His argument is well balanced and without unnecessary emotions or personal agenda. In his conclusion I hear overtones of complexity theory as well as the potential effects of mass consciousness on the nature of knowing such as we are seeing now in big data and with personal Internet exhaust data. I immensely enjoy his ability to so clearly bring his science to a greater scope of thinking about humanity and how we interact with our perceptions of reality. If he was in the room I would have stood up and applauded very loudly.



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